Forget About the Mythical Lone Inventor in the Garage
Real innovations happen in big, well-funded labs.
We like to imagine geniuses like Albert Einstein working alone
This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University. On May 21, Future Tense will host an event in Washington, D.C., called “How To Save America’s Knowledge Enterprise.” We’ll discuss how the United States approaches science and technology research, the role government should play in funding, and more. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America Foundation’s website.
Where are the best scientific ideas created and developed?
a) A garage.
b) A basement workshop.
c) A dorm room.
d) A kitchen.
e) A full-scale laboratory equipped with the latest technology and staffed with highly trained professional researchers.
It might not be romantic, but the correct answer is e).
As Americans, we tend to embrace the notion that a brilliant inventor doesn’t need much more than a garage, a sturdy workbench, and a dream. From Thomas Edison to Iron Man, our inventor-heroes have been popularly viewed as single-combat warriors working feverishly in a basement or some other threadbare den of solitude.
And that’s unfortunate, because the myth that innovative genius burns brightest in dingy isolation has a real impact on the way this nation views the importance of the knowledge enterprise and the scientific infrastructure that supports it.
Consider Edison. In his 14-month quest to develop a commercially practical electric light bulb, he wrote, “I tested no fewer than 6,000 vegetable growths, and ransacked the world for the most suitable filament material."
It’s awe-inspiring to think of Edison sitting alone at his workbench in Menlo Park, N.J., patiently testing fiber after fiber, hour after hour, day after day. It’s also patently untrue. In fact, Edison was leading the world’s first large-scale research and development laboratory, a highly organized, multipurpose facility staffed by a 40-person team of scientists and technicians.
After the light bulb proved successful, Edison went on to build an even larger “Invention Factory” in nearby West Orange, a complex that included sophisticated research facilities and manufacturing capabilities. At its peak, it employed more than 200 scientists, machinists, craftsmen, and other workers.
Edison succeeded in burnishing his public image as a lonely genius. After his death in 1931, the New York Times mourned: "No figure so completely satisfied the popular conception of what an inventor should be. Here was a solitary genius revolutionizing the world—a genius that conquered conservatism, garlanded cities in light, and created wonders that transcended the predictions of Utopian poets. ... With him passes perhaps the last of the heroic inventors and the greatest of the line. The future probably belongs to the corporation research laboratory, with trained engineers directed by a scientific captain." But away from the reporters and the newsreel cameras, Edison was in fact that scientific captain, the executive director of a big, world-class laboratory.
A more modern example of the gap between creation myth and reality can be found in the Palo Alto, Calif., garage where William Hewlett and David Packard worked together in 1938 to build custom electronic devices—a legendary partnership that eventually became the Hewlett-Packard Co. Today, that garage is marked with a plaque from the National Register of Historic Places declaring it “The Birthplace of `Silicon Valley.’ ”
It’s certainly true that Hewlett and Packard began building their first commercial audio oscillators inside that historic garage. But the prototype of those oscillators was built in the laboratory of Stanford University electrical engineering professor Frederick Terman. And Packard later wrote that many of those early devices were built using technical equipment at an engineering lab owned by a friend, an engineer and entrepreneur named Charles Litton. So while that Palo Alto garage may be a legendary landmark for the IT industry, Hewlett-Packard would not have been possible without its founders’ access to state-of-the-art engineering labs.
These romanticized versions of technological history aren’t just inaccurate. They threaten to undermine public support for the scientific infrastructure that is necessary to fuel American innovation and assure global economic competitiveness in the decades to come.
Today, American scientists and engineers are facing a number of perplexing questions that will have a lasting impact on our economy and our environment:
- How can we create a solar cell that costs five cents per kilowatt-hour?
- How can we reduce the cost of a car battery to one cent per mile?
- How can we cost-effectively capture the excess carbon in our atmosphere and store it permanently and safely?
At this point, we don’t know the answers to those questions. But we do know the most promising way to find those answers—by putting world-class researchers in world-class labs, inspiring them with an urgent sense of mission, and organizing them into “dream teams” with the combined expertise necessary to look at these questions from multiple perspectives and come up with the smartest, most practical solutions.
In years past, these types of mission-focused teams of experts could be found in America’s renowned corporate laboratories, such as IBM, Xerox PARC, and AT&T’s Bell Laboratories—organizations designed to turn scientific discoveries into commercially viable inventions and technologies.
I began my own career at Bell Labs, back in 1988, drawn by its reputation as a place where fundamental research was prized as the basic building block of technological innovation in the service of information technology.
For decades, as Jon Gertner describes in his recent book The Idea Factory, Bell Labs had served as a magnet for some of the world’s top researchers in science, computers, and mathematics. The results were tremendous, both scientifically and commercially—the invention of the charge-coupled device and the laser, as well as vital contributions to computing, satellite communications, semiconductors, and wireless technologies. By putting great scientists in great facilities, Bell Labs spurred whole new industries, created millions of new jobs, and changed the way we live.
But in 1995, in the wake of deregulation, AT&T spun off the labs, resulting in sharply decreased research budgets and a much narrower focus on technological research with a shorter-term likelihood of commercial marketability. Bell Labs’ reign as the world’s greatest industrial laboratory ended in 2008 when it pulled out of basic science, material physics, and semiconductor research—a decision that put an end to one of the last bastions of basic research within the corporate world.
In a financial world that is focused on quarterly results, it’s understandable that corporations have become unwilling to invest in basic research that can take 10 or 15 years to result in new money-making products and technologies. But without basic research, we will not be able to create the new products that spawn new industries and create good new jobs. So, increasingly, the responsibility for funding basic scientific research has fallen on the federal government.
That’s an enormous responsibility. But it also is an enormous opportunity for the national laboratories to demonstrate our unique ability to bring together partners from academia and industry to address the grand challenges of our time.
This effort isn’t easy. It requires armies of highly intelligent, highly educated people with deep curiosity, strong work ethics, and unflagging persistence. It requires a new, open approach to collaboration and teamwork. It requires a critical mass of state-of-the-art laboratories and instruments. It requires adequate funding to keep those vital factors in place over years, and even decades.
And perhaps most importantly, it requires a new, reality-based understanding that most breakthrough innovations are developed in laboratories, not garages or dorm rooms.
As a scientist, I know that every transformative idea is first born in the mind of an individual genius. But a lone inventor burning the midnight oil cannot match the impact of a team of brilliant experts working to develop that idea within a system designed to maximize discovery, with access to the best tools on earth—supercomputers, synchrotrons, accelerators, and all the other dazzling technologies that support science today.
The technological might of our National Laboratory system is unlikely to rival a musty garage in the public imagination. The men and women who work at my own laboratory, Argonne, and at our sister labs will never be portrayed as heroes in the pages of comic books. But we can’t allow romantic myths about creative loners to overshadow the reality that America’s knowledge enterprise depends on the work of robust teams of highly trained experts, enabled by a world-class scientific infrastructure and supported consistently by public funds.
The work we do in the national laboratories promises to dramatically accelerate the discovery and development of new materials, technologies, and processes—and ultimately, those efforts will power the expansion of the American economy. It may not be glamorous, but it’s important and it’s real—and personally, I think our real-world researchers are far more interesting and compelling than any mythical introverted genius working alone in a backyard shed.
After all—these days, even Iron Man is working in a team.
Eric D. Isaacs is the director of Argonne National Laboratory.